Is Lord Rees proving Kant right?


  • Social brain

This is the week of my annual lecture, which as regular readers know is on twenty first century enlightenment. Madeleine Bunting has kindly written a piece about it in the Guardian, although this has also meant opening me up to the strange world of readers’ posts on Comment Is Free. There are some useful comments pro and anti the thesis as Madeleine has described it but there are also several people who think my political past invalidates anything I ever say (apparently, even though I was running an independent think tank at the time, I am heavily implicated in the decision to invade Iraq!)

In discussing the idea of ‘autonomy’ in the pamphlet (published on Thursday) I refer to David Hume’s insight that reason rests on emotion:

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." 

As I say, two hundred and fifty years after Hume, neuroscientists showed that Hume was right. Antonio Damasio’s patients with damage to the parts of their brain governing emotion were unable to make even the simplest of choices.

Yesterday I was reading an interview in the Sunday Times with one of my heroes Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society. In it Rees controversially suggest that human beings may never understand the universe because ‘it could just be too hard for human brains to grasp’.  

I am hoping the philosophically literate among my readers can tell me whether there is any basis for me seeing an echo in this argument of Immanuel Kant’s idea of the noumenon.

I know Kant’s is a metaphysical rather than a scientific concept but the idea that there is a reality which is beyond the capacity of human sense organs to appreciate does seem common to both arguments.

Just as Hume anticipated neuroscience by three centuries did Kant’s metaphysics anticipate the impossibility of the human mind resolving the paradoxes of modern physics?

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